Joe Farren, Shanghai Nightlife Impresario (1939)

This article provides the back story to the rise of Joe Farren in Shanghai's nightlife industry, noting his involvement in the floor shows of some of Shanghai's most famous ballrooms including the Majestic and the Paramount. Yet as Paul French's new book City of Devils suggests, there is a lot more to the story of Joe than revealed in this cheerful article published in the American newspaper Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury...

Joe First to Present All-Shanghai Chorus

Joe Farren.jpg

(Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury, Dec. 15 1939 p. 1)

Night Club Pioneer Responsible for Introducing Numerous Revolutionary Ideas Into Local Show World; Bike-Riding His Weakness

His Chinese employees refer to him as Lao Foo (the Tiger).  His foreign hirelings address him as “Mr. Farren,” but to a vast number of Shanghai residents, including the high and the humble, he is just “Joe.” Reference is made to Mr. Joe Farren, pioneer Shanghai showman, night club owner, one-time ballroom dance extraordinary and ex-ballroom manager.  And it may be truthfully chronicled that Joe is one of the best-known residents of Shanghai.

Joe was the first to present an all-Shanghai chorus in this city.  He was the first to introduce foreign barmen in a first-class ballroom bar. First to introduce bar hostesses in Shanghai.  First with the two-piano idea in a night club.  First to open a first-class night club.

All-Local Chorus

Reverting to the all-local chorus, back in 1929 when the never-to-be-forgotten Majestic Hotel Ballroom was going strong, Joe and Nellie Farren were featured as ballroom dancers. Mighty good, too.  Until that time Shanghai had never seen a local chorus. All appearing here had been imported and usually were Russian or American.

Joe conceived the idea of a chorus of strictly Shanghai girls.  General Manager R. E. Telfer of the Majestic Hotel applauded the plan, but many other persons poo-pooed the idea and argued that it could not be done successfully.  How they demanded to know, could inexperienced, untrained Shanghai girls be expected to compete with professional chorus girls.  Why, it would take years to train them, the wiseacres opined.

A Showman

Farren, a showman since his 16th year on the mundane sphere, had other ideas.  Less than two months later he presented Shanghai’s first singing and dancing chorus.  Joe danced with the girls occasionally.  From the start the chorus was a huge success and on some nights despite the 1200 seating capacity of the ballroom it was next to impossible to find accommodation.  That was the first Farren chorus, the forerunner of others, even more famous.

Came Here in 1926

Joe Farren came to Shanghai in 1926 with the Nights of Gladness Company, an English troupe which had toured Europe.  After a tour of the Far East he returned here with Nellie and for a long period was headlined at the old Plaza Hotel Roof, where the noted Jack Carter band held forth. Later Joe and Nellie and their chorus used to pack in the crowds at the Canidrome Ballroom.

After the departure of Nellie, Joe in turn managed several ballrooms and is credited with putting them on a paying basis.  At one time he was supervising manager of three well-known dining and dancing establishments.

Came the year 1932 and with it the opening of the Paramount Ballroom, one of the largest and most beautiful dancing and dining spots in the entire Far East.

Lives Up To Promise

And with Joe Farren as general manager, with full authority over all departments, including the entertainment and music.  Prior to the opening Joe had promised Shanghai people something fine in the way of entertainment.  And he lived up to the promise.  Farren imported really noted artists from Europe and America, including Ella Shields, Cowan & Bailey and other great artists.

For the opening of the Paramount he imported an all-American “name” band.  The formal opening of the Paramount was one of the social events of the year.

Artists Imported

With the Paramount leading the way, other dining and dancing establishments began to import artists, although a few spots found the pace too hot and closed up or became cabarets.  

The Paramount astounded many persons by opening the first Shanghai bar within a ballroom.  Unheard of here.  Not only that, but Joe installed foreign barmen and foreign bar hostesses.  And successfully.  Heinz and Jackie, trained in the capitals of Europe, were the first barmen.

An ad for Farren’s that appears in the  China Press  27 June 1937

An ad for Farren’s that appears in the China Press 27 June 1937

Next Joe startled villagers by opening the city’s pioneer night club—the Blue Danube.  A feature was the double-piano idea.  Bob and Bertie furnished entertainment and the spot was generally packed.

Fame Comes

For four years Joe held away at the Paramount and the establishment gained international fame. In 1937 Joe opened a new place. He imported Shanghai’s first Continental band, despite the unfavorable exchange.  He also regularly imported foreign artists, which was not being done by other places at that time.  His 12-man band was the largest of any first-class ballroom in Shanghai.  Scores of high-class artists from America and Europe appeared at Farren’s.

His famous chorus, with some new girls and the inimitable Vera Love, who gained fame at the Paramount with the chorus of 18 known as the Paramount Peaches, headlined at the new spot for many months.  Incidentally, Joe made of the then inexperienced Miss Love a Shanghai headliner.

World War Veteran

Joe Farren is a veteran of the World War.  He served his country aboard an Austrian submarine and saw plenty of hazardous duty. However, he claims no glory, no medals, no wounds.  He is content with having served his country and has little or nothing to say of his experiences.

Mr. Farren is a keen soccer fan, is something of an athlete himself, has two faithful dogs, likes goldfish and flowers and welcomes a game of bridge at any time except during business hours.  His most spectacular is riding a bicycle through Hungjao ungarbed like a stoker. –L.F.